by Marion Nestle
Oct 24 2012

What to do about front-of-package food labels?

The British Food Standards Agency has just announced a new front-of-package voluntary labeling system to go onto food packages next year, maybe.

The exact design is still uncertain, but it might look like this:

An example of the what the new hybrid food labels might look like. Shows traffic light sytem, %GDA system and high, medium, low system.

Compare this to the scheme Mark Bittman suggested in the Sunday Times last week.

Bittman’s idea does way more.  He suggests one design to

  • Rate foods on the basis of nutrition, “foodness” (an index of the extent of processing), and welfare (of everyone and everything)
  • Give them an overall score and a traffic light ranking (green, yellow, red)
  • Note whether they contain GMOs or not

Here’s how it would look:


Recall that the FDA recruited the Institute of Medicine to recommend a new labeling scheme.  It did just that a year ago, in a report advising the FDA to restrict front-of-package labels to information about calories, saturated and trans fat, sugar, and salt.

Since then, the FDA has said not a word about its food labeling initiative (More research needed? Election-year politics?)

In the meantime, Whole Foods has implemented its own new traffic light labeling scheme, but without those pesky red symbols well established to discourage sales.  If the food doesn’t rate a green or yellow symbol, it won’t have anything on it.

Everybody is doing food rating systems.  The owner of Rouge Tomate has developed SPE certification for restaurants, a system based on “Sourcing, Preparing, and Enhancing philosophy and culinary techniques.”

All of the people doing rating and certification systems set up their own criteria, and all differ.

Are these systems helpful?  Only if you trust that they are meaningful.  I don’t know how to find that out without doing a lot of research.

Readers: Do you like these systems?  Use them? Find them helpful?  I don’t, but am willing to be persuaded otherwise.

  • Erik

    I will state that my local supermarket has the Nuval system on almost 100% of products (1 (worst) -100 (best)).

    I think it is a good reminder when I walk down the “snack” aisle and the highest score is maybe a 50 vs. the produce aisle where the lowest score might be a 70 of where I should be shopping.

    That said, it is a gentle nudge more than a decision driver. At the end of the day, I sometimes really crave that ice cream (for non hunger reasons) and the 8 on the label is not going to shift my behavior. That said, it overall helps.

  • Pretty soon these ratings will be as complex at the tax code. Let’s leave well-enough alone.

    Ken Leebow

  • Reina

    There are so many factors that go into a food purchase – it’s hard to determine which ought to be highlighted in front-of-package labeling. Another factor that I would be interested in seeing as I make purchases would be where my money would go if I made the purchase – does the company spend it on sourcing higher-quality products, paying their employees better wages, or marketing more aggressively?

  • I don’t think that reading the ingredient list is such an arduous task that we have to dumb down nutrition information to a traffic light system (although a clever, unbiased one could potentially help).

    I believe that people need to have minimal nutrition knowledge in order to make the right decisions for themselves, based on their personal set of needs and values. Nutrition literacy is key to living in our obesogenic environment and nutrition basic knowledge promises you will be able to navigate your way to healthy food in an ocean of junk.

    I think Bittman’s label is a wild dream, especially the “welfare” rating. The problem isn’t just a logistical and resource one. Measuring carbon footprint is hard and expensive, and assessing pesticide and herbicide’s pollution of water and air is even harder, but trying to get to an agreement about what animal welfare standards should be is impossible. It is a personal-view kind of question, with moral, religious and subjective subtexts.

    Republicans and Democrats will unite on the role of government and abortion before vegetarians agree that organic, grass-fed veal gets a 5 for welfare.

  • I read food labels and nutrition info every time I go to the grocery and would like it to be on the front of the package, clearer, and include information on GMO’s used in production.

  • hskoppek

    If the labels were indeed informative, I would welcome them.

    However, it is frequently difficult to understand how a certain score was arrive it. I happen to appreciate Mark Bittmans’ writing, but must admit that I would prefer the British Food Standards Agency label over Bittman’s. Why? Because calories, sugar, salt, etc. are easily measured and therefore reliable. Since sugar content is sometimes ‘hidden’ in a product (barley malt syrup, grapejuice concentrace, algarve nectar, etc.) it is difficult for me to figure out total sugar content. Thus the label helps.

    Although I understand what Bittman is aiming at with his label scheme, it does not really help me to make decisions. What exactly is meant by nutrition, foodness and welfare? And how exactly is it measured? It would take quite an effort on Mark’s part to explain it and on my part to understand it. Now what if it is perfectly clear and transparent to me and yet, I beg to differ on his definition of welfare. What if I don’t share the underlying values? Who is he, or anybody else for that matter to decide for me that something is ‘good’? And does it make sense to aggregate nutrition, foodness and welfare? What if I am just interested in the fuel part of nutrition and not at all in foodness or welfare? To me the score 9/15 does not make sense.

    Don’t understand me wrong. I am all for clarity and truth in labelling, but I believe that some issues are further complicated by making them too simple. Provide me with the facts, not opinions, on the label. Then I am free to form my own opinions based on my experience, suggestions from my doctor or articles of Mark’s.

  • Lucas

    I find the British label informative and useful, and would love to see it in the US.

    I find Bittmann’s label nearly useless and inscrutable. What does a 4/5 for “foodness” mean, and why should I care? It’s fluff.

  • There’s no need for further information on the front of food packaging. Shoppers can figure out what they are buying as it is. The expense this would entail on the part of the manufacturers is very significant and unnecessary. What may be wiser is a revamping of the current nutritional information. Also, the FDA “food pyramid” has historically been completely incorrect. I wouldn’t trust any governmental group to tell me the percentage of a given product I should be eating. It’s more micro-managing from the nanny state. Provide accurate nutritional information. If the consumer is too stupid or ill informed to make the proper choice, so be it. It’s not the government’s job to mandate what citizens eat. Maybe proper nutritional education at the junior high level would be a better investment.

  • Cathy Richards

    At first glance I love Bittman’s system. “Foodness” — soooo great!!

    Anything that makes it easier for the rushed & distracted to make healthier choices for overall welfare for themselves, other humans and creatures, and the earth, rocks in my book.

    These labels don’t replace nutrition facts or ingredient lists, they augment them.

    Re: the Nuval score — I have a bit of a problem with it since it is a secret logarithm that requires more information than can be found on the package, and companies have to pay for it — both of these conditions give Big Food an advantage over small food producers/growers. Plus, it doesn’t consider growing/raising conditions etc.

    Conflicts/Disclosure: I helped British Columbia develop the School Food Guidelines and 🙂

  • gd

    marion, id love to hear your thoughts on the recent reports (i think by consumer reports) about the high levels of arsenic in rice & rice products.

  • This is a great article. Thank you for your continued good work.

    Rita, blogging for boomer consumers at The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide

  • Bittman’s scheme is absurd. Apparently “white wonder bread” has a foodness value of 0. Of course, the only difference between that and baguette made with white flour are a few dough conditioners (i.e. tiny amounts of nutrients to encourage yeast growth) and tiny amounts of preservatives. Given the major nutrient value in both come from the wheat flour, does that mean “French bread” — an extremely traditional food that has fed millions — has a foodness value of zero? I doubt it. So the scale is just an arbitrary expression of food Bittman considers “real”.

  • A NEW DISASTER! The guideline daily amount is simply a disaster with NO connection with the REAL daily calories amount, which differs from person to person!! It is incredible how “experts” DON`T take this into account!! The Daily Calories Amount (Daily caloric Requirement) is very strongly dependent from the PERSONAL Metabolic rate…. read more in this chapter of the book ” Eating healthy and dying obese”

  • Elle

    I always read the ingredient list on any food that has one and no new labeling will change that.
    I discovered that I need to read the list even on foods I buy regularly as companies have a tendency to suddenly introduce “new recipes” and add ingredients I would rather not consume.
    I would love to see mandatory GMO labeling and a unified reliable fair-trade labeling on products.
    I’d also like to know where the vegetables and fruits I’m buying are coming from and if they are imported.

  • The fact that the big food companies DON’T like them is enough to convince me.

    Although I feel I am a very educated consumer, it can still be quite helpful to have such a visible reminder of what I should and shouldn’t be eating. The vending machines at my university have traffic light stickers on the front, with a list of the food inside ranked in order of calorie density. It didn’t stop me from buying a Snickers bar (right up the top of the list), but it did make me think about my choice first.

  • This graph clearly shows the differences in Resting Metabolic Rate when it is MEASURED with the ONLY scientifically valid method: the direct or indirect calorimetry!üller-Differences-in-measured-RMR-in-adult-germans-key-who-paper.jpg

  • For a better understanding: The Restung Metabolic Rate (RMR) is also named Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) as mentioned in this graphüller-Differences-in-measured-RMR-in-adult-germans-key-who-paper.jpg

  • SAO

    I’d like Added Sugars to be listed, although it’s mostly for my convenience. I’m finding that sugar is added to all sorts of stuff where sugar doesn’t belong. 25 years ago, I could buy almost any spaghetti sauce on the supermarket shelves, now, most are sweetened and I have to look at the ingredients.

    I like the European system of referencing everything to 100 grams. It’s easy to compare and easier to do math. I rarely eat what a package considers one serving.

    I like the idea of red, yellow and green lights.

    Michael Pollen suggested a rough rule of thumb when he said ‘eat food’ but I struggle to see how that can be codified into a rating system that doesn’t become little more than the codified prejudices of food snobs.

  • The existence of many food rating systems is the proof that FDA does not do its job well. Such food rating is very helpful to educate consumers but only if there is one standard across the board.

  • Julie

    I would personally love the Bittman label – namely the “welfare” portion which I feel the consumer cannot determine themselves by simply reading ingredients. That said, I am not sure most other consumers would take the time to read such a detailed rating system, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt for us all to know more. I’m not convinced GMO’s are the boogyman but I get the principal that we are mostly ignorant to the sources of our food supply.

  • I guess I am seeing both sides of this. I am all for making more educated choices when it comes to our food choices. However, these labeling ideas do seem a little cumbersome. Maybe if they were able to streamline the info a little more?

  • Hannah Rowley

    As a registered dietitian I struggle identifying the decision, proposed food labels are trying to drive. Are we trying to get people to eat less calories, more nutrient dense foods, animals that are treated better, etc? By not identifying a single clear driver for such a public message, I think we run the risk of over-complicating the issue and being as meaningless as the label cholesterol free on a box of crackers. Maybe we are thinking to inside the box, how about layout of stores, how items are arrange on shelves, what items get picked as the sale item of the week. Maybe an FDA endorsed label is a back of the house thing that then influences where the foods is placed in the store to promote/drive healthier purchases.

  • Gin

    Can we add a gluten and allergen indicator?

  • Information is only helpful and useful if the audience can understand it. Without consistent messaging, the average consumer cannot use the information on labels to assist in making decisions. Food manufacturers and grocers are smart: healthier foods are often perceived as more difficult to choose and prepare, while convenience in a can, box or bag is easy. Convenient.

    We have to make smart decisions easy for the uneducated shopper. I write about this often at

    While I respect and truly admire Bittman as one of our nation’s food champions, his label concept does nothing to help the average consumer make better decisions. While others in the comment stream believe we “shouldn’t have to dumb this down” or “people should be informed”, the reality is that most people see nothing wrong with cheap, overly processed convenience food. And big corporations spend lots of money each year convincing them of that.

    This is the battle we face.

  • Alex

    I personally am very interested in the “foodiness” and “welfare” categories of Mark Bittman’s labels, but they are obviously unattainable as either store- or government-mandates. Even if we had 100 clones of Mark Bittman working full time to make an executive decision on every product, Big Food manufacturers will not appreciate him editorializing on the front of their products. If even Whole Foods is unwilling to print the red light on their traffic light labelling because it will hurt their sales of organic junk food, why will other less forward-thinking stores go for this? I don’t mean to be cynical, but going through the legislative process is a joke considering food manufacturers can legally label an item containing partially-hydrogenated oils as 0 g trans fat (if it is < 0.5 g per serving). After all, the name of the blog is Food POLITICS. The NUVal system can be helpful but can also encourage dangerous dichotomous thinking— searching out only 100 point items may give you plenty of micronutrients but will not meet your caloric needs just as occasionally eating a small serving of a 5 point food will not cause lasting damage.

    As others have said above, I would love to see "added sugar" on the nutrition facts panel, as well as breaking polyunsaturated fats into omega 3s and omega 6s, etc. Country of origin for products containing fruits, veggies, etc would be nice also but is not realistic considering "may contain one of the following oils" is currently legitimate. But really, the thing I would love to see changed instead of adding more labels is to severely limit the health claims on products that seduce unwitting consumers.

  • Andrew Craig

    Here’s a perspective from a UK health educator specialising in food and physical activity for the last couple of decades. Will “traffic light” labelling on the front of food packaging do anything of significance to improve nutritional choices of British consumers? Answer – we have no idea. Despite what some campaigners claim, the evidence the FSA produced some years ago is ambiguous. Will it further confuse people? Answer – it could if it is simplistically used on healthy but high fat products like olive oil and peanut butter and nuts for instance. Will it have much long term beneficial impact? Answer – I doubt it. Why? Because consumer research across Europe suggests that taste and price will trump “health” more often than not. There may be an initial bounce effect, but I don’t think it will last long, especially in an austerity climate.

    I fully support providing information to everyone at convenient times, places and formats to help guide better nutritional choices. That is done well by GDA (guideline daily amounts) and nutritional labelling already. Sticking RAG traffic lights on top of this just salves the consciences of politicians.

    It would be much better to provide incentives for reformulation of products and introduction of new lines which combine a better health profile with taste and affordable price. That is a message consumers would respond to.

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  • As much as I like the British design, there is still the issue behind reading % Daily Values. Too many people don’t understand the concept behind it, especially the illiterate/immigrant population, which is unfortunately the same population we’re trying to target. When someone sees percentages they immediately think of the food itself – why would anyone instinctively think of their body?

    I do feel that it’s time we let go of % Daily Values. It’s just not working.

  • Anne Starr

    We need to remember the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. additionally i suggest we should not let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”.

    I would love to know about fair trade and carbon footprint, but I live in a US state where nutritional information isn’t even available on restaurant menus and obesity is a serious problem. I daresay if you are reading and/or posting about this article you are NOT the demographic this labeling is intended to reach.

    I like the traffic light label because everybody can relate to the red, green, yellow = stop, go, pause aspect.

    Personally I’d be happier with GMO and Country of Origin added, but I am most likely not going to experience obesity-related illness in my lifetime and the labeling should be directed toward those who are.

  • Lynette

    I think if there was a way for the foods to have a bar code for nutrition, then the consumer can scan the bar code and use an app to determine which nutritional expert they agree with according to their own morals and judgements.